Revisiting the Past: Cutty Sark, Greenwich, and Further Historical Examinations

Sunday October 13th, 2016 12pm

Greenwich

Map from Google Maps, property of Google Maps, outlining my walk. About 9 bus stops from New Cross Gate. 

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Though tiny and quaint, Greenwhich is a borough of London that is home to many historical offerings. About a half hour bus ride on the 177 towards Peckham from New Cross Gate, one can get off at Greenwich at the Cutty Sark/Greenwich Town Centre stop. From A206 one can keep walking straight up the pathway near Costa Coffee, past Greenwhich Market, and a little further up the lane should find Cutty Sark, the ship poking its way through the scenery. Quit fittingly nearby is the Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum for any passerby who wish to cultivate further knowledge on British Maritime History.

Cutty Sark first peaked my interest as the last surviving British tea clipper (History of Scotland Magazine, 2003, p. 1). Maritime history is no doubt important to an island country such as the United Kingdom, and I was hoping to discover more of what contributions Cutty Sark had made to British history. Clippers, a type of ship that were sailed predominantly in the 1800s were invented for faster transport across seas (Hamilton, Olive and Nigel, 1969, p. 82). First designed in 1869 by Hercules Linton and manufactured by Scott and Linton in 1869 Cutty Sark was made for Captain John Willis (History of Scotland Magazine, 2003, p.1). It is likewise important to note that although the ship is stationed for public viewing in London, it was originally a Scottish ship. Cutty Sark was also interestingly enough, developed out of a long rivalry that Captain John Willis had with all other existing tea clippers. His desire of wanting to own and sail the fastest clipper, lead to the creation of Cutty Sark (Hamilton, Olive and Nigel, 1969, p. 84).

Tea clippers, as the name suggests were mostly used for transporting tea across the ocean from the typical trade route between China and Britain (Hamilton, Olive and Nigel, 1969, p. 83).  The speed of the clipper, was what essentially made trading with them so appealing to merchants at the time. When clippers were first being built, they had troubles gaining any recognition until economic struggles started to take hold over England. It did not take long for Europeans to understand that many of their trade opportunities were being taken over by American inventions and industrialization. Britain had a lot of catching up to do in the world of trade after their Navigation Act had been repealed and when the East India Company Monopoly withdrew from trading with the island nation, the English were left in vulnerable territory where globalization and technology could have easily left them economically devastated and behind for centuries (Hamilton, Olive and Nigel, 1969, p. 82). The Navigation Acts were primarily concerned with not permitting foreign trade items to be shipped into British waters on vessels that were not also British (McGovney, Dudley Odell, 1984, p.726). Many merchants at the time disagreed with the restrictive legislation, arguing that free trade of goods would bring the greets prosperity to commerce (McGovney, Dudley Odell, 1984, p. 733). Commerce as most merchants at the time understood it to be most prosperous when countries were enabled to trade goods amongst themselves. So when the Navigation Act of 1660 had been repealed, it was more fully embraced because it allowed all trade items within Europe to be imported to England regardless of the nationality of the vessel it was traveling on (McGovney, Dudley Odell, 1984, p. 734). Thus, in the 1850s when the Scottish began to commission regularly for clippers in their dockyards, the British clippers were born and would lead to the ultimate legacy of still standing Cutty Sark (Hamilton, Olive and Nigel, 1969, p. 82).

Now, when one walks past the tea clipper there is a Museum located beneath the ship itself. Majestic, and riding above the town of Greenwhich while overlooking the Thames, it somehow still fits with the scenery. Although, not many walking by would know much about Cutty Sark. For instance, the ship could sail at 17 1/2 knots through intense wind and could sail 360 miles per day (Hamilton, Olive, and Nigel, 1969, pg. 81). Even though, the original intent of the ship was to be the fastest clipper, Cutty Sark was not able to meet the ambitious demands. Cutty Sark was unable to defeat her biggest fellow-ship rival named the Thermopylae (Hamilton, Olive, and Nigel, 1969, p. 84). Whilst not the fastest, it did succeed in transporting cargo such as tea, Australian wool, and coal (Hamilton, Olive, and Nigel, 1969, pg.86). Cutty Sark was not the only ship to produce legitimate disappoint for the maritime industry. Though efficient, speedy, and good competitors the price for building the ships were economically immense. The materials it took to build Cutty Sark from the wood and a stern lined with gold, Cutty Sark actually caused her original shipyard to fall into bankruptcy proving an unsustainable future for the clippers at sea (Hamilton, Olive, and Nigel, 1969, pg. 83). Cutty Sark ended up being sold to a Portuguese company, and would sail around various countries until the inevitable dissemination of the tea trade ( Hamilton, Olive, and Nigel, 1969, p. 84) Due to the inefficiency of production and manufacturing of the tea clippers, they slowly began to die out of the sailing world.

The richness of maritime identity can be found scattered all over Greenwhich center. Past Cutty Sark, and the overlook of the Thames River is the National Maritime Museum. The efforts to preserve this history, have clearly not been lost or done in vain. As I was finishing up my walk along the times, I wondered how the culture of the Universities and Museums influenced the identity of Greenwhich residents. The founding of the Royal Naval College adds to the sea faring theme of this borough that was founded in 1806 (Lloyd, 1960, p. 33). Founded by the Order in Council in the year of 1873 from a statement approved by the Royals “We do therefore beg leave to recommend that Your Majesty will be graciously pleased, by Your Order in Council, to approve the closing of the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, and the founding of a College at Greenwhich, to be styled Royal Naval College, accordingly.”(Lloyd, 1960, p. 33). Thus, stamped with a seal of approval exists the Royal Naval College whose aim is to successfully train aspiring future naval officers. I’m sure that the College contributes a sense of pride amongst residents, and encourages further independent exploration of maritime history for those who grew up near the area.

The research that I have conducted has led to the town of Deptford who shares a deep entanglement with maritime history as well. Once the Deptford Creek Bridge was built in 1815, the town could also become a fair competitor in sea trade now that there was a connecting body of water to drive available commerce through both towns (Spurgeon, 1997, p. 11). The first dock yard was constructed on Deptford land due to the demands of Henry VIII in 1513, it proved to be successful, expanded, and is now known as the King’s Yard (Spurgeon, 1997, p.11). If one were to walk the dock yards of Deptford now, one would be greeted by a standard view of the Thames. What both Deptford and Greenwhich have in common other than being historical ship sites, is that they have both changed due to industrialization. For Deptford, it was the invention of the railway that would stretch into what is now New Cross, and for Greenwhich it would be the wistful passing of the tea clippers that would alter the landscapes of what visitors, tourists, and students see today (Spurgeon, 1997, p. 13).

There is no doubt, that the residents have informative resources available at their fingertips and there is certainly a possibility that these museums are continuing to revive maritime history and the residents of Greenwhich (Phyllis, 2004, p. 24). Museums, can in fact contribute to identity by enabling us to question how our history is represented, and who to greater extents is responsible for representing us. This is of paramount importance, because when visitors step into a museum who aren’t from the same area, one hopes that the information they are being presented with is accurate. It is of interest to think why the Cutty Sark Preservation Society thought it best to leave the ship in Greenwhich and why its preservation would contribute to history (History of Scotland Magazine, 2003, p. 1).  Preservation and restoration of historical artifacts, continuously shape identity by providing information on the past. By making this ship available and maintaining it to stay under good condition, one is left with the impression that Cutty Sark is important. Whether or not the ship relates to them directly, an individual can understand how it relates to the location and how it continues to revive what we currently see. This may seem paradoxical, that the present can be revived by the past just by observing how far man kind has come from using ships as a main mode of transport to now having railways and even an underground system. When I look back out at the Thames River, I no longer just see a river subjected to years of industrialization, globalization, and general pollution, I see a vast river that was once occupied by the presence of clippers transporting tea making contributions to history and an ever-changing, unpredictable economy that can be revisited and experienced to this day.

Bibliography: 

Hamilton, Olive and Nigel. Royal Greenwhich: A guide and history to London’s most historic borough. The Greenwich Bookshop, 1969. 

Harland, John H. “Tall Ships and the Cutty Sark Races.” Northern Mariner / Le Marin Du Nord 5, no. 4: 80-81. Historical Abstracts with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed November 26, 2016). 1995.

History Scotland Magazine. “Cutty Sark: The only surviving tea clipper in the world.” History Scotland Magazine 3, no. 2: 8-9. Historical Abstracts with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed November 26, 2016).

Leffler, Phyllis.   “Peopling the Portholes: National Identity and Maritime Museums in the U.S. and U.K.” The Public Historian 26, no. 4 : 23-48. doi:10.1525/tph.2004.26.4.23. 2004.

Lloyd, C. “Greenwich Palace, Hospital, College.” 1960. 

McGovney, Dudley Odell.   “The Navigation Acts as Applied to European Trade.” The American Historical Review 9, no. 4 725-34. doi:10.2307/1834096. 1904.

Spurgeon, Daniel. “Discover Deptford and Lewisham.”  Greenwich Guide Books: 1997. 

Cutty Sark Image:

English School. Cutty Sark. (20th, Bridgeman Education). November 26, 2016.   

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